The Lebanese State as Initiator of Gentrification in Achrafieh

Source: Les carnets de l'Ifpo

July 5, 2012

In the past few decades, gentrification has evolved into a global urban phenomenon, as an increasing number of cities around the world are witnessing the gradual gentrification of their historical centres and adjacent quarters. Beirut presents no exception to this urban transformation; several of its neighbourhoods, such as Furn el Hayek, are experiencing numerous upscale real-estate developments coupled with a change in the resident population. This article aims first, to explore the role of the Lebanese State in initiating this process through laws and regulations that manage the urban space; it will also identify some sides of the liaisons between Lebanon’s politico-economic elite, public authorities and gentrification taking place in Beirut in general, and in Achrafieh in particular.

Gentrification theories and the role of the State in initiating this process

Gentrification was first identified by the British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 as a process of urban restoration of inner cities that generates a change in the social fabric, with middle classes taking over working class neighbourhoods.[1] Since then, the definition has evolved to depict the production of space for, and its consumption by, a different and more affluent incoming population (Slater; Curan; Lees, 2004: 1145).

Theories on gentrification are mostly divided between the consumption-side notion, put forward by David Ley in 1986, mainly based on the emergence of a new middle class with new needs; and the production-side one, developed by Neil Smith, in 1979, who emphasizes the production of space, of a supply, thus anticipating a demand.

Smith advanced the “Rent-Gap theory” as an explanation for this process, where the “Rent-Gap” is the difference between the actual rent for a piece of land and the potential one, if the land had higher, more profitable, use. In line with David Harvey, Smith inserted gentrification in a larger process of uneven development, related to a capitalist system that keeps on reproducing itself on different geographical scales, in order to contain its crisis (Harvey, 2001: 324).

From the production-side perspective, the State plays a prominent role in initiating gentrification. The actions of the State can take two forms, either “direct intervention” or “setting the appropriate framework.” Direct State intervention is achieved either through exercising direct control on real-estate operations (Smith, 1996: 1220) - financing the process, selecting the developers, and displacing the existing tenants - or through subsidizing the renovation of a targeted neighbourhood (Holm, 2006: 124) and the construction of large projects, hence triggering the gentrification process (Clerval, 2008: 40). As for the second form, the State sets the appropriate framework through, mainly, tax exemptions for large real-estate developments, providing the necessary infrastructure and constantly adjusting the regulations in accordance with the objectives of the real-estate industry (López-Morales, 2010: 157-158).

Urban renewal in Achrafieh: speculation, upscale high-rises and displacement of residents

Following the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Beirut became the place for one of the largest construction sites in the Middle East, the reconstruction of its central district. The city also witnessed two real-estate booms centred on the construction of upscale high-rises, one in the 1990s, and the other starting 2004. These real-estate booms were also accompanied by a mounting speculation that reached a five-fold increase in land prices in the last decade in some areas of Beirut, such as Achrafieh (Catusse; Boissinot, 2011).

Achrafieh is considered to be of a strategic importance in the real-estate industry circles, for three reasons: first, it is a hill overlooking the sea; second, it is adjacent to the Central District and third, it is adjacent to the highway leading to the airport. For this same period of time, and in the western part of Achrafieh - Furn el-Hayek and its surroundings, an area of almost 0.7 km² - over 50 old buildings were demolished, and nearly the same number of high-rises have either been constructed or are in the process (see fig. 1 & 2). These demolitions forced around 350 families to relocate to more affordable areas in Beirut, but mostly to the suburbs (Catusse; Boissinot, 2011). As for the new constructions, they are overwhelmingly heavily secured residential projects, and their new residents are either wealthy Lebanese expatriates or Gulf state nationals. The Law on Old Rent is one of the major mechanisms of this urban renewal. To be able to gain more money, owners are left with one option only: demolishing their property and then either selling their parcels or going into partnerships with real-estate developers (Catusse; Boissinot, 2011).


Fig. 1: Buildings demolished and evicted families in the western part of Achrafieh Source: Google Earth 2000;
Field survey conducted by Éléonore Boissinot & Hicham el-Achkar, 2011.


Fig. 2: New constructions in the western part of Achrafieh Source: Google Earth 2011;
Field survey conducted by Éléonore Boissinot & Hicham el-Achkar, 2011.

A strong State that serves the economic interests of its dominant elite

While the unintended consequences of the Law on Old Rent play a significant role in the gentrification taking place in Achrafieh, other laws, regulations and State actions contribute more directly in fostering this process. But before further examining the role of the State, the question of the strength of the Lebanese State has to be addressed.

Most urban researches consider Lebanon to be a weak and non-interventionist State (el-Achkar, 2011: 11-12). Despite this weakness, the State is a key actor because it controls a variety of strategic resources and has the power to impose various reforms, plans and projects (Farah, 2011: 81). Furthermore, in a liberal economic system, such as in Lebanon, the State remains strong, although its strength is mostly materialized in domains that serve the interests of the dominant elite (Makdisi, 1997: 698; el-Achkar, 2011: 33).

Public authority in the Lebanese State is divided into two levels. On the one hand, there are the “political authorities,” the Presidency, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers, which are composed of and dominated by the country’s politico-economic elite. On the other hand, there are the “administrative authorities” composed of the various administrative bodies (see fig. 3). Since the end of the Civil War, consecutive ministerial statements, which prioritize the goals of the government - and thus of the political authorities - and set the guiding lines on how to implement them, have always stressed construction as a priority. It was first considered a boost for development,[2] and, since 2000, as the engine behind economic growth.[3] The construction sector’s contribution to the GDP continued to grow over the years[4] supported by policies and laws promulgated by Lebanon’s political authorities. It is worth noting that the same political elite that drafts and issues laws and regulations, via the political authorities, invests largely in real estate. There are several politicians-developers, such as the Hariris, Mokbels, Jabers and Kanaans, but most of this elite invest in real-estates as silent associates, unknown to the general public (el-Achkar, 2011: 70-72).

Among these laws and regulations, two hold a prominent role in shaping the urban space in Beirut, the Master Plan of Beirut and the Law of Construction.


Fig. 3: Processes of intervention between different authorities Source: el-Achkar (2011: 117)

Beirut’s Master Plan and Law of Construction: a combination favouring large constructions

The Master Plan of Beirut has remained almost the same since 1954. It is very basic and lacks many restrictions. Mainly, it sets the exploitation ratio and parcel dimensions for each zone. For the western part of Achrafieh, there are no defined uses for each zone, no height limit for construction and no setbacks from neighbouring parcels. The Master Plan also allows an increase of 20 percent in the Total Exploitation Ratio (TER) for parcels adjacent to two different roads. The Directorate General of Urban Planning (DGU) is the administrative body entrusted with urban planning in Lebanon. Although it has been active lately in establishing master plans for most regions in Lebanon, its efforts in amending Beirut’s Master Plan, or any other project in the capital, are constantly obstructed by political pressure (el-Achkar, 2011: 101).

The Law of Construction is periodically amended. During the parliamentary debates, leading to the promulgation of the latest law, nº 646/2004, the main concerns were about property rights and economic issues, not on the social and physical impacts. Parliamentarians have shown themselves willing to legalize illegal situations when these will lead to an increase in the TER. Taking the case of balconies, which were already exempted from the TER - on the condition of not exceeding 20% of it - the new laws allow them to be covered with glass curtains. The reasons given by parliamentarian were aesthetic, to get rid of the anarchy created by the multitude of colours of the existing curtains and to allow residents to sit on their balconies during winter.[5] This article was later amended in 2007.[6] Sliding panels were considered curtains, de facto turning balconies into rooms. The new law adds also several new exemptions to the TER, such as the area of exterior walls, of additional elevators, etc. Also, the new law amplifies the building volume[7] by increasing the height by 25 percent.

The Law of Construction is restricted by the Master Plan, so in the case of Beirut where there are few restrictions, the combined result is higher and larger volume. Taking Trabaud 1804 - a 23 story high building under construction on Yared Street in Achrafieh - as a case study, this combination added 32 percent in comparison to the old law, nearly doubling the original TER (el-Achkar, 2011: 93). As for the 25 percent height increase, it has come as a precious gift for developers, as in Achrafieh the price of apartments increased by at least US$100 per square meter per floor (Boudisseau, 2010: 84).

At the same time, laws or regulations to counter the combined effect of the Master Plan of Beirut and the Law of Construction are either lacking or lagging. There is no law on speculation; a law on the built heritage[8] has been stalled in parliament since 2007; etc.

*        *        *

In summary, the dominant political elite exercises two kinds of interventions on the public authorities: a formal one, via regulation, exemption and extension of implementation; and an informal one, by politicizing the administration and exerting pressure. The actions of public authorities can be divided into active ones, such as promulgated laws and degrees or undertaken projects; and inactive actions: aborted plans or regulations due to extension of implementation or informal intervention pressure. In this case, the inactive actions’ aim is to preserve the status quo, while the active actions serve the enlargement of real-estate development. From another side, the dominant elite invests heavily in real estate, through their companies, or as silent associates. In the case of Achrafieh, and with the speculation taking place, this take the form of upscale high-rises fostering gentrification in this area, which leads to the destruction of urban heritage and to the displacement of population (see diagrams 1 and 2).


Fig. 4: Factors contributing to the process of gentrification in Achrafieh Source: el-Achkar (2011: 118)

Studies on gentrification in Beirut are still in their preliminary phases. Still, some of the initial findings in Beirut, as well in some other cities in developing countries, present many variants from the common norms of gentrification seen in Europe and North America. In Beirut, gentrification is based on the demolition of old buildings and the construction of high-rises, which is also the case in Santiago de Chile (López-Morales, 2010: 146); gentrification is not taking place in dilapidated areas, nor according to a real-estate devaluation-revaluation pattern; gentrification is also not accompanied by an upgrading of the public space (el-Achkar, 2011: 133); mobilization against this process is virtually non-existent (Catusse; Boissinot, 2011), etc. Therefore, a better understanding of these dissimilarities will provides us with a broader comprehension of this global urban strategy that is gentrification.

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[1] Clerval and Fleury (2009, p. 33) argue that gentrification is an old process, and that in the case of Paris, it dates at least to the Haussman’s renovation of the city, in the second half of the eighteenth century.
[2] Ministerial Statement, Government nº 61, Rafiq Hariri’s government, 1992.
[3] Ministerial Statement, Government nº 65, Rafiq Hariri’s government, 2000.
[4] The share of the construction sector into Lebanon’s GDP is the highest in comparison to other countries in the MENA and Europe regions (United Nations Statistics Divisions, “National Accounts Main Aggregate Database,” 2011, accessed May 7, 2012, http://unstats.un.org/unsd/snaama/dnllist.asp).
[5] Minutes of meeting nº 69/2004 of the Joint parliamentary committees on the Law of Construction.
[6] Legislative Decree nº 617/2007.
[7] The volume inside which a construction should be built.
[8] This Law is intended to supersede the Law on Antiquities, promulgated in 1933.

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